Since the 1970s, research abounds showing the close correlations between ecclesiastical decline and "mainline" theology that seeks to syncretize the thinking of a godless culture with Christianity. Conversely, Dean Kelly's 1972 book Why Conservative Churches are Growing noted that evangelical groups were "moving at an amazing clip while there is an equally dramatic decline in membership in the mainline churches."
But liberalism doesn't die easily, and John Shelby Spong's vitriolic new book vindicates this fact.
The well-known liberal cleric, who was Bishop of Newark until his retirement in 2000, has always been a vocal opponent of evangelical theology. Beginning with 1991s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Bishop Spong attacked evangelical confessionalism on hermaneutical grounds, faining respect for the Scriptural text while asserting that fundamentalists fumbled the interpretation. But in his latest work this year, Spong moves from merely attacking Biblical interpretation to attacking the text of Scripture itself. His book, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love, seeks ultimately to discredit the Bible and its human authors as outmoded, outdated, homophobic, bigoted and narrow-minded propagandists.
Gone from Spong's work is the suggestion that we have misunderstood the meaning of the phrase "Word of God." In it's place is the assertion that Scripture cannot be understood to be the Word of God at all! Asks Spong: "How can a book that is called the Word of God leave such a trail of violence, hostility, and death throughout its history?"
No more does the Bishop contend that complimentarian evangelicals misinterpret Paul's teaching on women in the pastoral epistles. In Spong's new book, he simply states that Paul was a narrow-minded shauvanist.
Rather than performing hermaneutical acrobatics with Romans and 1 Corinthians in order to "respect" Scripture while rejecting its plain teaching on homosexuality, Spong simply declares the Apostle Paul to be a homophobe.
Well, at least he's honest!
Bishop Spong's latest book is the epitome of classical liberal theology in its most highly evoluted form to date, and the Bishop himself is the poster child for liberalism at its worst. His aim in writing this work includes the refutation of clear Biblical teaching that he considers dangerous and "sinful." Says Spong: "It is quite clear to me that it is the assumption that the Bible is in any sense the Word of God that has given rise to what I have called in the title of this book 'the sins of Scripture.' I mean those terrible texts that have been quoted throughout Christian history to justify behavior that is today universally recognized as evil." But which "terrible texts" does he speak of? To name just a few:
"“When Paul or one of his disciples instructs women to subject themselves to their husbands (Eph 5:22) slaves to obey their masters (Col 3:22 and Eph 6:5) and children to obey their parents (Col 3:20 and Eph 6:1-3) surely that is not the eternal ‘Word of God’ speaking. These are the reflections of a rather discredited cultural sexism, an immoral oppression of human life and an obsolete guide to good parenting being revealed here.”
Similarly, Spong reacts viscerally to Paul's condemnation of homosexual behavior, concluding by asking the rhetorical question: "Is there any reason why anyone should believe that this convoluted and bizarre understanding of the tortured Pauline mind could ever be called ‘the Word of God’? Is it rational to think that these words would ever be used to condemn or to oppress those who awaken to the reality of their homosexual orientation?”
But these assertions themselves are grounded in pre-conceived assumptions about the Biblical text itself. For example, the Bishop contends that "Moses had been dead for three hundred years before the first verse of the Torah acheived written form." This contention, commonly referred to as the "documentary hypothesis," assumes several things, cheif among them that the Hebrew people were somehow different from every other people group that lived in the ancient world. Rather than consider the possibility that Scripture has divine origins (in this case, God speaking through his servant Moses), Bishop Spong finds it easier to believe that while other ancient civilizations were writing down their history as it happened, the Hebrews were the only ones to say "why don't we wait 300 years before we write it down?"
The naturalistic assumptions about Scripture continue with Spong's assault on the miracle narratives. “If we believe these stories in any literal way, we have to presume that God suspended the laws of the universe in the first century to allow Jesus to demonstrate His divine origins.” But Spong's critique is not limited to the miracle narratives alone. The historical accuracy of the Gospels themselves is called into question. On Jesus' assertion that no one comes to God except through Him (John 14:6), Spong replies by saying "Of course, Jesus never literally said any of these things. . . . .the “I am” sayings are clearly the contribution to the tradition of the fourth Gospel.”
Predictable liberal positions on abortion, homosexuality, animal rights and environmentalism are the natural result of such assumptions about Scripture, as are overly simplistic attacks on evangelical faith. For example, Spong contends that evangelicals have simply ignored literary criticism and other exegetical tools in order to cling to our understanding of the Bible as "inerrant." Of course, evangelicals do not deny that "inerrancy" applies only to the autographic text of Scripture. Nor do we discount phenommenological and figurative language in the text, or pretend source criticism is a fairy tale. We freely confess the reality of all this within our conviction that a historical grammatical approach to interpretation is the plainest and most obvious avenue to arrive at the true meaning of Scripture. But to Bishop Spong, evangelical faith is a plague on the house of Christianity.
Therefore, his purpose in writing is to reestablish what he believes is the essence of what it means to follow Jesus. "We are to build a world in which every person can live more fully, love more wastefully, and be all that God intends for each person to be. In that vocation we will oppose everything that diminishes the life of a single human being, whether it is race, ethnicity, tribe, gender, sexual orientation or religion itself.” This is, he contends, what Jesus came to do. “That is the Jesus I hope to sketch out when the deconstruction is complete." In short, gut the Apostolic witness of all its major pillars, and you will arrive at this new worldview that the Bishop so desparately wants to identify as 21st Century Christianity.
The difficulty now is in defining how this new Christianity will accomplish the Bishop's goals within his own self-made liberal utopia. How can a "full life" be lived, or even understood, apart from a Biblical understanding of the imago dei? How can we know what God intends if we can't even know God through the Scriptures? How can we know how life is diminished when the very notion of human sin is eradicated from the human conscience? How can we accomplish the mission of Jesus when we can't even distinguish between what He said, and what He didn't say in Scripture? In the end, Spong, described by the inside cover of his book as "a deeply committed Christian," attempts to point to "dramatically different ways to engage the sacred story of the Judeo Christian tradition." Instead, the Bishop's vision of liberal Christianity is as empty as liberalism itself, and totally incapable of pointing humanity to the truth of Jesus Christ.
Can you imagine a liberal going on "evangelistic visitation?" What will he say? "Hi, I'm from the First Baptist Church, and I just stopped by to let you know that your relationship with God is just fine. There is no need for you to reject any idols you may be worshipping. And don't be too worried about the lifestyle you have chosen. God simply wants you to be happy." Is it any wonder that mainline churches are hemmoraging? Their message essentially says to the unchurched "You don't need us."
Over a half century ago, neo-orthodox theologian Richard Neihbur said this of the liberal Christian Gospel: "It presents a God without wrath, who brings men without sin into a Kingdom without judgement, through the administrations of a Christ without a cross." No statement could more accurately describe the bankruptcy of classical liberalism. Bishop Spong in his latest book has revealed this movement for what it really is; a feeble attempt to redefine the God of the Word by rejecting outright the Word of God! But Jesus will not be confined to the liberal agenda!
Make no mistake, the Bible is not to be worshipped! That is not the point of this post, nor the point of evangelical assertions of Biblical authority and inerrancy. But it was Jesus who claimed in no uncertain terms that no part of the Scriptures would pass away. (Matthew 5:17) If you want to find God, you must look to Christ. If you want to find Christ, you must look to the Bible. At stake in the liberal rejection of clear Scriptural teaching is a much more serious consequence than losing a political, intellectual or theological debate. To reject Scripture is to reject the Christ of Scripture!
In his closing lecture on Scripture over 100 years ago, Southern Baptist theologian John Dagg issued this challenge to young pastors: "Mortals, hastening to the retributions of eternity, be wise; receive the revelation from heaven presented to you in the Bible; attend dilligently to its instructions, and reverence its authority, as the word of the final Judge before whom you will soon appear." Solemn words for a solemn subject!
The deadly danger of theological liberalism is that at its heart, it is more committed to a modern human ideology than to God's revelation of Himself. True, liberal theology is far from dead. But the end result of its empty message will be many who remain dead in their sins. Ironically enough, their only hope is found in the very Bible they seek to discredit.